My husband and I recently watched, “Le Show Johnny” on TFI, with Johnny Hallyday and it was a joy to watch. Not just to see a living legend at work, but also to see the faces of the people in the audience. In watching them, you could see they were being transported back in time when he sang. Possibly to a first kiss, dance or any happy place that his music became part of their lives. What was even more surprising, is that the audience was filled with all walks of life. Young, old, punk, hippie, you name it, they were there, cheering and chanting his name between songs.
Sadly, I’d never heard of Johnny Hallyday before my husband told me about him. We had visited Sun Studio and he pointed out a picture of him hanging on a wall. Since then, I’ve become a fan myself. At 67, to see Johnny perform like someone half his age was astounding, let alone to have the rich, resonating voice after over 50 years in the business. I was struck at the similarity between Johnny and Elvis, both as performers and by the reaction of their fans.
Being a former Memphian, Elvis was our hometown hero. Even my dad and Elvis where born in the same city, Tupelo, Mississippi, even though they never knew each other and my grandfather was his drummer, when they were touring locally, before Elvis hit the big time. I was only ten when Elvis died but I’ll never forget that day. Probably in the same way a generation before, remembered where they were when JFK was shot. I recalled what I was doing when the news broke, the reaction of the people when they heard the news and the emotional aftermath of the following months, as our city mourned. I was actually in a bowling tournament (it was actually hip then) when the news spread across every lane like a swarm. I can still see the mental image of white bowling pins standing at attention as the news blanketed each row, as if they were saluting the newly departed. I heard actual screams and crying, not from only women, but also the men, which surprised me as a 10-year-old girl in the south, where men just didn’t cry.
Elvis was like a distant cousin to Memphis folk; everybody had an Elvis story and I grew up hearing those stories. He was known for his extreme generosity publicly, but the truth is, he gave away money and cars often, which never made the headlines. He would read about people in our local paper at the time, the Memphis Press Semitar (now the Commercial Appeal) and would anonymously send money or cars to ease their suffering. Back then, Memphis was small enough, that word got around quickly, since there weren’t that many people who weren’t natives at the time. I know it sounds bizarre, but I never really understood Elvis’s impact on the world, fully; since he was talked about like a distant relative my whole life and born in the same place where my dad’s familiy still lives.
In fact, I was married two years to my ex-husband before learning that my then father-in-law, had been Elvis’s plumber for many years before he retired. My ex-husband’s family were also patients of the now infamous, Dr. George Nichopoulos (Dr. Nick), who was blamed for over prescribing medication to Elvis, leading to his untimely death. Not that I excuse Dr. Nick for his involvement, but I knew him to be a very compassionate doctor, who supported his patients in and out of the doctor’s office. He attended the funeral of my ex-husband’s aunt and I could see the toll that Elvis’s death had taken on him, personally and professionally. Even with all the scrutiny, he came to support my ex-husband’s family at the funeral.
Although I don’t know any personal history through the stories of others about Johnny, I’ve seen his impact. From living in France and in visiting Belgium often, I have heard my husband’s family and others talk about Johnny’s songs or even sing a few bars after a few ‘apero’s’ (aperitifs). I began thinking of Elvis and how similar their public personas are. Johnny is also known for his hip movements and outstretched arms to the crowd in addition to his powerful bass/baritone voice. I couldn’t help think that if ‘The King of Rock & Roll’ were alive today, they would be singing together.
Through Johnny, I was able to finally understand the impact of Elvis (and Memphis music) on the world and not just in my sleepy hometown. Johnny filled the eyes of his fans with joy, both of times past and knowing that they were witnessing a living legend. Part of me is sad, that Elvis never saw the eyes of his fans the way Johnny’s do, but how refreshing to know Johnny is a living, breathing, brother, of the King himself. And that, gives me something to sing about!